A young child was once chastised by his minister father, for keeping his eyes open while he prayed. The boy said to his father,
A little mouse for want of stairs
ran up a rope to say its prayers.
The father was not amused, and punished the child, who cried out,
O father, father, pity take
And I will no more verses make.
Well, fortunately for us, Isaac Watts did not keep that promise. Instead he went on to write more than 750 hymns, one of which we will sing today, Joy to the World.
When Isaac Watts was born, in Southampton, England in 1674, his father was in jail. The senior Watts, also called Isaac Watts was a minister in what was known in England as a nonconformist church, which basically meant he was not a member of the Church of England. He was jailed twice for his religious views, which was not lost on the Younger Isaac Watts. The boy was a genius. He learned Latin at the age of four, Greek at 9, French at 11, and And when he was 13 years old, he learned Hebrew. Other people saw the genius in the boy (it must have been hard to miss!) and offered to pay for him to attend Oxford or Cambridge. But because he was a religious dissenter, like his father, Watts was not allowed to attend either of these schools. Instead he went to London to study under The Rev. Thomas Rowe, who was also a dissenting minister. Watts then went on to serve a church in inner London, Mark Lane Independent Chapel, then one of the city’s most influential independent churches.
Although he was a dissenter, or non-conformist, Watts was a not a strident preacher, like many of his colleagues. He was pretty ecumenical for a guy who was ostracized by the religious establishment of his day. Although by all accounts he was a gifted theologian and philosopher, he is best known for the hymns he wrote, hymns that are sung today in churches of all denomination stripes.
Among the 750 or so hymns he wrote, were:
- Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove
- Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun (based on Psalm 72)
- O God, Our Help in Ages Past (based on Psalm 90)
- When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
- Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed
- I Sing the Mighty Power of God (originally entitled Praise for Creation and Providence from Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children)
- And the subject of this sermon, Joy to the World
This is a hymnal, published in 1844 for the Presbyterian Church. Every hymn in here was written by Isaac Watts. He was such a prolific writer of hymns that these books were often called Watts’s Books.
Back when Watts and his father were ministers, they only thing sung in their churches was the Psalms. This goes back to John Calvin, who was suspicious of anything that aroused emotion, including music. He decreed that only the Psalms, which were ancient Hebrew hymns, would only be sung in worship. As Watts watched the people in his church sing the Psalms, He noted: “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”
Ironically, what for Calvin was a sign of piety, singing only Psalms, had become a barrier for people to really experience God in worship. So Watts decided the Psalms needed an update. In 1719 he wrote The Psalms Of David: Imitated In The Language Of The New Testament, And Applied To The Christian State And Worship, which contained Joy to the World. You may wonder why this hymn was included in a hymnbook based on the Psalms, but in fact Joy to the World is Watts’s version of Psalm 98.
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth:
make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.
Watts was not translating the Psalms so they could be sung as much as he was updating them so they could be better understood by the people who sung them. “They ought to be translated in such a manner as we have reason to believe David would have composed them if he had lived in our day,” he said. He made some major changes in the Psalms. First, he thoroughly Christianized these ancient Hebrew hymns, bringing Christ into all of them. It is hard to imagine a Jew in David’s day singing, “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun, doth it’s successive journeys run,” but that was Watts’s take on Psalm 72. He also turned the diatribes against enemies, which are found throughout the Psalms, into diatribes against temptation, sin, and Satan. He would leave out whole sections that he thought were not needed, and took the most “sublime flights of faith and love” (his words) and put them into the reach of ordinary Christians.
His work was not without controversy however. One of his detractors said, “Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired psalms and taken in Watts’s flights of fancy.” His hymns were denounced by many as Watts’s Whims. Many people did not want that newfangled music messing up their traditional worship services. But the hymns endured.
Watts had to resign he post as a minister due to bad health, and became a private tutor to a wealthy family. He taught theology, philosophy and logic as well as writing hymns. The logic textbook he wrote was used at Oxford and Cambridge for more than 100 years.
But his real gift to us was the hymns.
Joy to the world
Joy to the World was not written as a Christmas Carol. As I said earlier, it is Watts’s take on Psalm 98, which is a song of praise for what God has done for the people. “O sing unto the Lord a new song; for he hath done marvellous things.” For Watts, the marvelous thing was the coming of Jesus to the world. The Lord has come, wrote Watts, and the Lord is our king. That is the greatest cause for the greatest joy. When Jesus was on earth, he taught his disciples many things, and at the end of his earthly ministry, on his last night with his disciples, he said, as we heard in the Gospel lesson this morning, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
Watts wrote his hymns so that people could experience Joy in worship, and here he tells us that our true joy comes with Jesus, and his coming to the world. Although it was not written as a Christmas carol, it is easy to see why it is sung at Christmas, when we celebrate the coming of Jesus into our world. In the second verse, it is not only people who experience the Joy of Jesus. “Fields & Floods, Rocks, Hills & Plains, Repeat the sounding Joy.” (Floods, by the way, meaning rivers.) When Watts says, Let earth receive her King, he is not just referring to the people of the earth–he is referring to everything on the face of the earth. The planet and all that is on it receives the King with Joy. As a philosopher and theologian, Watts would have studied Aquinas, who says the God is the essence of what it means to exist, and that everything that is, owes its existence to God. All of creation is infused with the essence of God, and all of creation carries within a spark of the divine. So, when the Eternal Word, the Incarnate Son of God comes to earth, the whole planet welcomes him. In some ways, the planet becomes complete when its creator comes to it.
But there is a special part of Creation. When God made the world, the creator looked at the creation and said, It is good. But when God made humans, the creator looked at them, and said, ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד
As the earth opens itself to the presence of God, more importantly, our hearts open up to receive our King–the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace.
In the third verse Watts tells us why our hearts are joyful–instead of sin and sorrow, instead of thorns and thistles, we find blessings and richness. This is not to say that life is all hunky dory since Jesus came; but it is say that we are no longer under the thumb of all the bad stuff. He comes to make the blessings flow, overcoming the curse, overcoming the ways that life drags us down.
It is a King who has come, and he rules the world–not with power and might, but with righteousness and love. That is why we open our hearts to the King. He came to change hearts. We can make all the superficial changes we want, and sometimes we do need to change things in our society, but first and foremost, we need to change our hearts. We open our hearts to the coming King, and we find the world changes as we change.
It was Watts’s desire to bring joy back to the worship of the people. He did not want them mindlessly mouthing words that ran off their souls like water off a duck’s back. He wanted them to participate in the joy of worshiping their King, their Creator, their God.
I hope we find that joy in singing his gift to us today.